Category Archives: reading as a writer

BOOK REVIEW: “Our Blue Earth” by Richard Carr

In December of 2014, I wrote my last review of Richard Carr’s poetry. Earlier this year, I learned that not one but two new collections of poetry by Richard Carr had been published. Both were available at Amazon where I purchased them. The first, Our Blue Earth, I’ll review today. The second, Fitzpatrick, I’ll review at a later date.

The first thing that startled me about Our Blue Earth was the cover: a large black crow regarding me as if daring me not to read the book and what might happen if I didn’t. Crows also appear often in the poems, sometimes as part of the scenery but most often as what I took to be an ominous descriptor of something — a dream, a voice, a place as in “crow territory.”

That night in my old bed/in the old house I dream/of this: A crow/standing on the top of a telephone pole/throws back his head. There is no sound.

The “blue earth” of the title has a double meaning of sorts. The first meaning of the town of Blue Earth in southern Minnesota, or the county of Blue Earth in Minnesota. It is a county of prairie and farms, and farms and farming figure prominently in this collection; and where Richard Carr grew up. But “blue earth” could also be our planet, known as “blue” earth (or blue marble) thanks to NASA photos.

The poems inside focus on Blue Earth, Minnesota, but I read them as being also about planet earth, about humanity in a larger sense. I don’t know if Carr intended that. As a writer, I know that readers bring so much more to a piece of writing collectively than what the author or poet brings alone.

Carr in his dedication calls the poems in this collection “persona” poems. What does that mean? I think it means that the pronoun “I” that he uses in the majority of the poems does not refer to Carr himself, but to a separate narrator “I,” giving distance to what “I” experiences in the poems. I was startled by Carr’s use also of “we” and especially “you” in the poem “Asked to Recall” — the only poem in the collection that pronoun appears as the subject. Carr also steps way back in a couple poems, writing about “the boy.” While these poems are not personal in the sense that they are about Carr, he must draw on his experience growing up on a farm in Blue Earth, his family, and his departure and returns. One way of examining a life is by creating a persona to inhabit that life which is what I think Carr is doing in these poems. As a result, he also pulls the reader  deeper into the poems, giving the “I” to the reader, or addressing the reader as “you” or including the reader in the “we.”

These poems inhabit an unsentimental place where memory can be dark, gritty, and sour. Nature exists and just is rather than being either benevolent or evil. Life goes on no matter what happens. Carr’s images startle, haunt, and provoke — “a wizened politburo of crows,” “a feather of mist passes on the water,” or “night hauls its groggy paunch across the plains.” My favorite poem in this collection is a lovely sonnet, “Serpent Wind.” Carr manages to take something as common as wind and make it into something truly creepy:

A steady west wind slithers in the screen,/pulls through the open window, flex and glide,/a careful snake, a voiceless hiss, unseen/except the sleepy curtains move aside.

Sorrow lives in Blue Earth, as does confusion, resentment, disbelief, and acceptance. I would call this collection probably as close as Carr may come to writing personal poems, i.e. poems about himself and his experience and acknowledging them as such. But if you’d like to explore a different world from your own and feel like it is in fact yours, I highly recommend Richard Carr’s Our Blue Earth.

Advertisements

“Perceval’s Secret” FREE through April 7!

Perceval’s Secret is FREE through April 7 at B&N.com, Kobo.com and Amazon.com

Synopsis: In June 2048, American Evan Quinn conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Vienna, Austria as Americans and Chinese conduct talks in that city about their economic relationship to prevent a global economic meltdown. Evan defects to be free of American oppression and brings a “Day of the Jackal” secret with him that could demolish the talks and ignite a global war. Viennese Police Inspector Klaus Leiner, convinced Evan is an American spy, especially after CIA operative Bernie Brown takes an interest in him, organizes a surveillance operation to collect evidence for his arrest. Evan must stay ahead of the police and CIA while establishing his new life and music career. He believes he’s left America behind but has he? Whom can he trust? Finally, he realizes that his secrets could make him his own worst enemy or provide his best chance for survival.

Pricing update: As of March 25, the only Amazon site offering Perceval’s Secret for free is Amazon US. 

Sampling of Reviews at Amazon:

“A dense psychological suspense thriller full of surprises.”

 A chilling story of the world’s near future, with an emphasis not on the amazing technology, but on the personal relationships people have with technology, politics, and each other.”

This book is a well-crafted spy mystery/cold war drama with interesting details about classical music, conducting, and levels within people. It also works in post traumatic stress from a non-military vantage point. The ending leaves this open for additional books and I hope to see a new one.”

Do you like to read suspenseful novels that take you into a different world of experience as well as a different country? If so, check out my thriller novel Perceval’s Secret. It’s available at Amazon, B&N.com and Kobo.com for FREE through April 7, 2018.

 

Nothing Stops the Books Giveaway: Want to win a Kindle Oasis?

In addition, if you’re a member of BookBub.com (or want to become a member), there’s a big promotion going on from March 23-29 sponsored by LitRing. You can enter a drawing to win one of two Kindles Oasis by clicking on C. C. Yager’s name on the giveaway page here. Her BookBub author page will come up and just click to follow her there. Voila! You are now entered to win a Kindle Oasis!

 

After entering the drawing, hop over to Amazon or B&N.com  or Kobo.com and get your FREE copy of Perceval’s Secret to read!

Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.

 

Book Review: “Devil’s Trill” by Gerald Elias

For me, the mark of a good story is if I continue to think about it long after I’ve finished reading it.  Well, Devil’s Trill, a mystery by Gerald Elias has been on my mind since I finished reading it at lunch yesterday.  There are two reasons my mind won’t let go: first, it’s a good, fun story that I enjoyed, and second, it’s a story set in the classical music world like my own novel Perceval’s Secret. Not many writers have chosen to set their stories in the classical music world, so I’m always interested in reading one that is.

The protagonist of Devil’s Trill is violinist Daniel Jacobus, getting on in years, blind, and the ultimate curmudgeon, but still passionate about music and instilling the love of music. Set in 1983 — pre-computers and cell phones and Spotify or YouTube — Jacobus has agreed to take on a young Japanese student sent to him by a good friend in Japan. Yumi Shinagawa turns out to be the real deal in many ways and receptive to Jacobus’ pedagogy. The following weekend, he decides to attend the recital at Carnegie Hall of the 9-year-old winner of the Grimsley Violin Competition, held every 13 years for violinists no older than 13 and run by the Musical Arts Project or MAP. He also attends the post-concert reception where the extremely valuable and rare violin the winner had played, the Piccolino Stradivarius, disappears. Jacobus becomes the top suspect in this theft. Into his life walks Nathaniel Williams, a musician friend who’s become an insurance investigator, who wants Jacobus (along with Yumi, it turns out) to assist him in finding the stolen violin. From this point on, the mystery of the stolen violin intertwines with the political and financial intrigues of the classical music world, along with the murder of the Grimsley winner’s violin teacher.

Elias does an excellent job of illuminating the value placed on certain violins over others, the fine line music organizations walk between pure entertainment and art, and the importance of music to humans. The title refers to a violin sonata composed by an Italian named Tartini. It’s famous for its difficulty, and for its backstory.  Tartini claimed to have had a dream of the Devil playing the violin and when he woke, he tried to capture on paper the music he heard in his dream. The difference between dream and reality is a subterranean stream that flows under this story, giving it depth.  I loved that Jacobus was also a teacher — it gave Elias the opportunity to also illuminate music as well as his knowledge about violin playing and the violin itself.

He took a huge gamble with Jacobus, however.  This character is not at all a lovable curmudgeon.  In fact, for a while I thought he was definitely irritating and stuck at his own pity party. But I was also intrigued by his irritating me, and eventually Elias reveals more of Jacobus’ story — how he became blind, what is important to him and how the world frustrates him at almost every turn. He shouts a LOT. But he also has the kind of rat-terrier-like mind that’s perfect for solving a mystery, especially one that involves a stolen violin. The supporting characters were not nearly as well developed, primarily because they are “seen” through Jacobus’ experience and point of view.

I loved the mystery, though. Certainly not your usual mystery story, it had much different twists and turns to it than usual that grew out of character motivations as well as the reality of the music world in 1983. And the murder mystery turned out to be another twist that upped the stakes for Jacobus to find the Piccolino Strad. I loved also returning to the classical music world.  Not nearly as glam or stuffed shirt as so many people assume, it can get pretty cut-throat and dirty. And when a violin is worth $8 million, it can also involve a lot of money. I will say, however, regarding plot, that Elias provides the reader with a marvelous twist near the end, and then seems to drop it right there. It left me wondering what happened and if Elias knew what he’d done. As it turned out, and much to my relief, he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t playing completely fair with the reader.  I hope that in his subsequent novels, he does a better job of that.

If there were as many novels about musicians as there are about police officers, doctors, or lawyers, not to mention all sorts of criminals, maybe the reading public would be more inclined to read more books set in the classical music world. Devil’s Trill is definitely a good place for anyone who enjoys mysteries to start.  And I look forward to reading more of Gerald Elias’ books.

Obstacles and Creating Suspense in Fiction, or “The Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

book-cover-doomsday-bookWhat would it be like to travel back in time in Oxford, England to the Middle Ages? A young historian finds out in The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The “present” is December 2054. The young historian, Kivrin Engle, is to be sent back to December 1320, a time deemed relatively safe by the powers that be in the history department at Oxford. Two sections of that department are involved in this project: Medieval and Twentieth Century, the latter because they’ve had more experience doing time travel, and have more experienced techs to operate the “net,” the mechanism for the time travel.  What could possibly go wrong?

When I began reading this novel, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I was reading it on the recommendation of several friends. The time travel aspect really intrigued me. And then, the medical detective story surprised and delighted me.  What truly fascinated me, especially as a writer, was how Willis used obstacles to build and maintain suspense throughout her story.

Structure first: It is a 3-act dramatic narrative structure with two distinct threads contributing to it. The first chapter is the set-up or first act. The second act lasts until about the last chapter overall, but there are also climaxes for each of the medical stories.  So, there is the overall time-traveling story that alternates between 2054 and the Middle Ages, and two sub-stories regarding medical issues, one a virus, the other a bacterium. There is Kivrin the protagonist, and then there is Mr. Dunworthy, the point of view character and protagonist in 2054.  What do they each want? Once Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages, her primary goal is to find “the drop,” i.e. the place where she arrived. The first obstacle in her way is falling ill when she shouldn’t have fallen ill.  Once Kivrin has left 2054, Mr. Dunworthy becomes aware that there was some kind of problem with the drop. He spends the rest of the book trying to find out what went wrong, why, and how to rescue Kivrin.

manor-middle-ages

Manor in the Middle Ages

The obstacles: In the Middle Ages, Kivrin starts out being so ill she’s delirious and hallucinating. She speaks modern English which the people who find and care for her don’t understand. She must overcome their suspicions about her and gain their trust. She must fix her inner translator so she can begin by speaking Middle English. She’s cared for by a noble family and a parish priest. They believe her to be from France, of a noble family because of her clothing, and that she had been attacked and robbed on the road. Once she begins to recover, her translator kicks in, and she learns about her rescue. She realizes that she must find the location of the drop so she’ll be able to return to 2054. She believes the nobleman’s prive knows the location because he found her and brought her to the village and their manor house. She spends most of the rest of the book trying to either find him or talk with him. The customs of the Middle Ages, especially those governing the behavior of men and women, and the way people communicated, stand in her way. The matriarch of the manor stands in her way. And then the children stand in her way. And then she discovers that something had gone wrong with the drop, and a dangerous bacterium threatens to stand in her way. Each of the obstacles arises organically from the time, the people, or the customs. Kivrin’s focus on finding the drop keeps the pressure on and increases the suspense.

doomsdaybook

The obstacles: In 2054, the first obstacle to Mr. Dunworthy is that the tech who did the drop falls deathly ill with a mysterious virus. That virus needs to be identified, and then the source of it identified, in order for the doctors to be able to treat it effectively.  Arising out of this obstacle, Medieval’s head, Mr. Gilchrist, refuses to let Dunworthy back into their time travel laboratory because Gilchrist is afraid the virus came through the net from the Middle Ages. Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, the Oxford area is quarantined by the government which restricts the movement of supplies and people into Oxford. As a result, the quarantine becomes a major obstacle to Dunworthy — the phones don’t work well, travelers are detained and must be housed and fed, techs outside of Oxford for the Christmas holiday refuse to return, and the sick tech is too sick to tell Dunworthy what the problem was with the drop. Poor Dunworthy. Wracked with guilt about Kivrin, pushed and pulled this way and that by the people in and around the University, all he wants is to get into the lab, solve the problem and get Kivrin back.

By writing in close to each protagonist’s point of view and mind, the reader witnesses the chaos of emotion within them as well as their thoughts. This also contributes to the suspense. There were times I began to feel some irritation at Willis for having Dunworthy or Kivrin keep repeating themselves about their goals, but that just enhanced the pressure of the obstacles thwarting them. When Dunworthy falls ill, all looks lost.

What a wonderful example of a novel for creating and maintaining suspense! And what a riveting story. I loved the characters, I loved the humor that Willis injected into the very serious situations, and I loved the emotional release that the ending provided. A masterwork of fiction that I highly recommend to anyone interested in reading speculative fiction, time travel stories, historical fiction, or medical detection stories.  Bravo, Connie Willis.